Trump & Foreign Policy

The Total Destruction of U.S. Foreign Policy Under Trump

His last remaining objective is obtaining foreign help for his reelection.

Wendy R. ShermanJuly 31, 2020, 11:24 AM

U.S. President Donald Trump chats with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders' summit in Danang, Vietnam, on Nov. 11, 2017.

The lack of any significant U.S. response to the revelation that Russia has offered money to the Taliban for killing U.S. troops shines yet another ugly spotlight on the foreign policy of U.S. President Donald Trump—or, more precisely, the utter lack of one. As the presidential election season heats up, Trump’s latest failure should remind American voters that his administration has failed on the most important global threats—not least the COVID-19 pandemic, Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea. All these and other foreign-policy failures should be just as much at the center of the debate as the crush of domestic policy concerns.

Trump’s latest failure should remind American voters that his administration has failed on the most important global threats.Many months after the Russian bounties first became known to the White House, and weeks after they became public, Trump still has taken no action and expressed no empathy for soldiers or their families, claiming that this issue, too, is just a hoax cooked up by his enemies. On this issue as on so many others, his foreign policy mainly consists of a series of marginally coherent tweets with no discernible objective or strategy. Indeed, after three and a half years in office, Trump has developed no foreign policy at all. What we do see are haphazard assertions, “maximum pressure” campaigns, boundless admiration for and obsequious pandering to authoritarian leaders, disparaging of democratic allies, and so-called trade deals that cost thousands of American jobs and lack any strategic objective.

As a result of Trump’s failures, the Middle East is further from peace and closer to the next Palestinian uprising than when he took office, the people of Cuba and Venezuela face a bitter future, the promise of African renewal is sidelined, and there is no real challenge to either Russia or China.

Trump’s approach to Iran is another painful and costly example. Over three years after the Trump administration withdrew from the nuclear deal, Iran has more highly enriched uranium available for a nuclear weapon, more operating nuclear facilities, more sophisticated technology, and a shorter breakout time to build a nuclear weapon. Its malign behavior in the Middle East has not ceased, Americans remain detained by Tehran, and human rights in Iran have worsened. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Iran envoy Brian Hook advertise this as a campaign of “maximum pressure,” but their ultimate objective—which they insist is not regime change—remains a mystery.

A similar lack of clear objectives and coherent policies features in virtually every area of foreign policy and national security. On the issue of North Korea’s nuclear weapons, what masquerades as Trump’s policy is nothing but a series of photo opportunities with dictator Kim Jong Un. Other than stating the need for “complete, verifiable denuclearization” by North Korea, there appears to be no strategy for even a single incremental step on the way to such a goal. As Trump has done with European allies on Iran, Washington has left allies in Seoul and Tokyo blindsided and out of the loop, dangerously exposed both to North Korea and to the erratic policies of the United States, and with no hope of any de-escalation of tensions with Pyongyang.
Years from now, we will hopefully discover the exact nature of Trump’s personal relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin beyond mere envy of power.

In the Middle East, the administration’s mysterious, so-called peace plan between the Israelis and Palestinians—developed by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner—was so secret that it never really made an appearance before being shrugged off. As the November election approaches, there is no discernible objective of Trump’s policies other than currying personal favor with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and, more importantly, with Trump’s evangelical Christian base—while undermining the long-standing bipartisan nature of U.S. support for Israel. Even U.S. allies such as the United Arab Emirates and Jordan are now so opposed to Israel’s Trump-backed plan to annex parts of the West Bank that stability in the Middle East is further undermined.

Perhaps most damaging to U.S. strategic interests and global stability is Trump’s complete mishandling of Russia and China, where he has veered between mere transactional tactics and his desire for photo-ops with authoritarian strongmen. Years from now, we will hopefully discover the exact nature of Trump’s personal relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin beyond mere envy of power. Trump has already voiced his envy of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s status of president for life. And in both cases yet again, there appears to be no overarching objective, no strategy for getting there, no coherent policy process. There is no evidence, for example, of a desire to preserve arms control with Russia or to stop Russia’s (or any other country’s) persistent disinformation campaigns that are now looming as an ever-larger threat to the integrity of the U.S. election. And by scoffing at Russian bounties on the heads of American soldiers in Afghanistan, Trump underscores his continued stance of putting Russia above U.S. interests and American lives.

At the same time, the Trump administration has made no effort to find areas of cooperation with China, such as climate change, even as the United States challenges and confronts China on issues such as intellectual property theft, unfair trade practices, and control over the South China Sea.

What remains after all these failures is a clear effort by Trump and his allies to obtain Russian and Chinese help for his reelection.What remains after all these failures is a clear effort by Trump and his allies to obtain Russian and Chinese help for his reelection. We should all remember Trump’s shocking plea for Russia to interfere in the U.S. election when he was still a candidate in 2016: “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.” This time around, we know from former National Security Advisor John Bolton that Trump, at the June 2019 G-20 summit in Japan, pleaded with Xi to help him win reelection. At the same summit, during his meeting with Putin, Trump laughed off Russian interference in U.S. elections. And this week, at a congressional hearing that followed a senior counterintelligence official’s warning that Russia, China, and Iran are actively trying to influence the November election, Attorney General William Barr hesitated to say that it was inappropriate for a presidential campaign to solicit or accept foreign assistance.

The only possible conclusion is that the objective in Trump’s relations with other countries is not national security but Trump’s security. Nothing else explains the vacuous and vain approach of a foreign policy without objectives, without strategy, without any indication that it protects and advances U.S. interests.

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As the United States enters the final months of the presidential election campaign, Americans are understandably preoccupied with the coronavirus pandemic, issues of racial injustice, and their own challenges in a collapsed economy with a dismal outlook. But if the virus has taught us anything, it is that the fate of the United States is inseparable from the world’s. The United States’ recovery from the pandemic and the economic collapse is dependent on other countries for public health, for trade, and for peace and security. As November approaches, Trump’s disastrous lack of any coherent policy to advance U.S. interests and to keep Americans healthy, prosperous, and safe—as well as his still-accumulating string of failures—should be at the center of the country’s debate.

Wendy R. Sherman is a professor at Harvard University, the director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard Kennedy School, a former undersecretary during the Obama administration, and the author of Not for the Faint of Heart: Lessons in Courage, Power, and Persistence. Twitter: @wendyrsherman

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